A common concern we hear about is neck pain and stiffness, especially when it doesn’t have a clear source, e.g. an injury or accident. It often seems to come out of the blue like you slept ‘funny’ and wake up with a stiff/sore neck. There are a variety of reasons why neck pain can happen, from muscle imbalances or weakness to stress or long sustained work postures. Often it feels like if you could just stretch in the right way you could relieve the pain and it would just go away. When your neck is sore, you’ll often find that there are specific movements that seem to make it hurt more, often turning your head or sitting up straight, so you avoid those movements. Unfortunately, avoiding, although less painful in the short term, will often perpetuate the pain longer, so it is important to learn how to move into those positions gently and deliberately to gradually alleviate the pain.
Whatever the source of neck pain and stiffness, there are a few positions and exercises you can try to relieve the pain and get on with your day:
1. Shoulder Setting
Shoulder setting looks a lot like what you picture when someone tells you to sit or stand up straight
Your shoulders go back and slightly down
You lift up through your chest
You’ll notice you need to engage more core and back muscles to support your body in this position. The trick with shoulder setting is to focus on your shoulder blades squeezing mostly back and together, like you’re trying to tuck them into your jean back pockets. You don't want the tops of your shoulder to get closer to your ears.
You want to find a neutral version of this position so you do not have to force this position, especially if you are starting from the point of being sore, chances are this won’t feel great the first time you do it.
If painful, be gentle, move slowly, and test the end of your tolerable, pain-minimal range of movement.
Basically you want to try, test, relax, and repeat frequently throughout the day, until you get to a place where you can complete the shoulder setting without any increase in pain.
2. Chin Tucks
A chin tuck is often described as pulling your head back and your chin down to create double chins (extra points if you get into triple or quadruple).....Just joking...extra chins means you are likely forcing the position which is not the point of the exercise.
What you are actually trying to do is pull your head back and in line with your spine, so that if you do it well you’ll actually feel a gentle stretch at the base of your skull. This goal may result in fewer chins, but it should feel more comfortable. This one is especially great if you have pain near your shoulder blade
The chin tuck works well when paired with shoulder setting - each time you try to straighten your body and set your shoulders, the final step is to tuck your chin back. These two exercises work to take the pressure of your sore and stiff muscles, which should help limit or eliminate your pain.
If turning your head has been one of the movements causing additional pain, try the shoulder set and chin tuck and then attempt to turn your head - just be gentle to start. If that is still too sore, try laying on your back with your knees bent. From here, engage your chin tuck, then turn your head while it is supported by a thin pillow. Again, it may take several tries over a period of time to be able to turn your head without feeling additional pain, so as with the shoulder setting, you want to gently test the end of your tolerable range but not push into it.
Even if you don’t know exactly why your neck is sore, these simple exercises can help you reduce pain and get back to your usual movements. Give it a try!
As always, connect with one of Lab Health Physio's experienced clinicians if you have more questions or other neck concerns.